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17th Nov 2018

EU gives 'space' for Russia to make peace with Ukraine

  • EU leaders on Tuesday warned Russia that extra sanctions are still on the cards (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

EU countries are keen to "give space" for Russia to come to terms with Ukraine's new leader, after Russia's failed attempt to derail the Ukraine elections.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Tuesday (27 May) praised Ukrainians for managing to hold "what was a genuine election … despite the hostile security environment in two eastern regions of the country".

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Russia-backed gunmen in several towns in the Donetsk and Luhansk districts in east Ukraine stopped the vote from going ahead.

At a pro-Russia rally in Donetsk city on Sunday, stolen ballot boxes emblazoned with Ukraine's state logo were used as dustbins, including by men who identified themselves to a reporter from Vice News as fighters from Chechnya in southern Russia.

Nobody in the city of 1 million people got a chance to vote. In the Donetsk region as a whole, just 15 percent of people made it to ballot boxes.

But overall, 60 percent of Ukrainians did elect the new President - businessman Petro Poroshenko - on his pledge to crush the pro-Russia rebels and to sign an EU free trade treaty.

Poroshenko also got a clear majority in those eastern regions where voting did take place, and where many Russian-speaking Ukrainians backed his campaign.

The Ukrainian authorities' first reaction was to use overwhelming force against rebels at Donetsk airport, in an operation which killed more than 40 insurgents.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry on Wednesday urged Western governments to put pressure on Russia to stop sending more fighters and weapons into Ukraine.

Some Ukrainian civil society groups also urged the EU to step up pressure.

"There were overt – and successful – efforts to disrupt the elections in two regions, and there are now large numbers of trucks with armed fighters crossing the Russian border into Ukraine. Only the [EU's] 'grave consequences' for Russia are yet to be seen," Halya Conyash, from KHPG, an NGO in Kharkiv, north-east Ukraine, said.

But for his part, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, told press on Wednesday: "Now that the presidential election is past, efforts should be taken to stop the use of the army and to end the violence."

He continued to make claims that Russian-speakers in the east are victims of ethnic hatred.

"We pay special attention to reports on human rights violations in Ukraine, infringement on minority rights and xenophobia," he added.

The EU summit communique made no explicit reference to the Donetsk airport operation.

It did say the EU supports "Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity", but it also urged Poroshenko to "reach out to the population and civil society of all regions of Ukraine".

It added: "We expect the Russian Federation to co-operate with the newly elected and legitimate President, to continue the withdrawal of armed forces from the Ukrainian border and to use its leverage on the armed separatists to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine."

It also warned that if Russian leader Vladimir Putin reneges on his pledge to "respect" the outcome of the vote, it will press ahead with further sanctions.

Sanctions work ongoing

"Preparatory work by the [European] Commission and the EEAS [the EU's foreign service] on possible targeted measures [against Russia] is underway and [leaders] agree to continue preparations for possible further steps on that basis should events so require," it said.

One EU contact present at the leaders' dinner on Tuesday told EUobserver: "There was not much discussion of the joint statement and no discussion of whether the Donetsk airport operation was a positive or negative development."

The source added: "The feeling was: It's a good thing the elections went ahead at all and we should give Ukraine and Russia some time to digest the events."

A senior EU diplomat said: "We should give Russia some space to make good on President Putin's moderate new language. But no one is naive enough to judge him by his words alone."

The diplomat noted on the Donetsk airport operation: "Nobody wants to see violence, or people killed. But any government has a right and a duty to defend itself against terrorism, so long as its actions remain balanced and proportionate."

Another EU diplomat told this website: "This is not the right time for extra sanctions [on Russia]. The few voices who say that it is are in a clear minority."

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